Monday, April 23, 2012

Richard James On Junior Chess: 2. This For Starters

On Friday last we trailed this series of guest posts by Richard James with his assessment of the state of junior chess in this country. The series continues today and will appear every day, i.e. Monday to Saturday inclusive, throughout this week, taking an in-depth look at junior chess, training at school level and beyond, and how to nurture chess talent.

Richard has organised his thoughts around a number of propositions, the first of which he discussed on Friday. As the series unfolds your comments would be welcome, especially if you have experience of junior chess.
Richard James on Junior Chess

2. All children should learn chess

Yes – in an ideal world every child ‘should’ learn chess. But every child ‘should’ also learn Bridge, Scrabble, Mancala, Go, Backgammon and many other board and card games. Every child ‘should’ also participate in a wide range of individual and team, outdoor and indoor sports. Every child ‘should’ also be able to learn at least two musical instruments from different families, and learn about a wide range of musical genres. Every child ‘should’ also sing in a choir. Every child ‘should’ also be able to experiment with a wide variety of arts and crafts using a wide range of media. Every child ‘should’ also learn to speak several foreign languages. Every child ‘should’ join a youth organisation such as, depending on parental taste, the Scouts or Guides, a Cadet Corps or the Woodcraft Folk. Every child ‘should’ learn how to cook. Every child ‘should’ take up gardening. Every child ‘should’ study philosophy. Every child ‘should’ take up meditation. Every child ‘should’ learn how to program a computer and design a website. Every child ‘should’ do a thousand and one other interesting, enjoyable and beneficial things. Each one of these activities has enthusiasts who are trying to persuade parents and schools that children ‘should’ share their particular interest. At the same time children – not ‘should’ but ‘must’ – have a basic education in terms of reading, writing, mathematics, sciences and humanities which will enable them to make sense of the world, continue to further, more specialised, education should they wish to do so, and find a job. At the same time many experts are increasingly concerned that children are doing too much too soon and don’t have enough time just to enjoy being themselves.

Wearing my ‘chess’ hat it’s very easy for me to visit schools and tell them all children should do chess. But wearing my ‘teacher’ hat, and as a teacher who believes in small-scale, child-centred education, I can see that, for many of the children at the school where I teach, chess may not be the best use of their time.

If we take the activities mentioned above and rank them in order of the number of children who would gain significant benefit from them, much as I love chess I wouldn’t put it at the top. (I wouldn’t put it at the bottom either, but that’s not my point.)

Here’s GM Jaan Ehlvest, writing in the introduction to his new chess course based on the step by step methods used in Russia for many years:
“This book is especially for those children who, for whatever reason, find chess more interesting than karate, music etc.”
As it’s a book for absolute beginners I suppose teachers or parents are expected to be proactive in deciding which children should try chess.

David Malam is a strong (200+) chess player and the head of Twickenham Preparatory School, one of the strongest chess schools in the country. He is very enthusiastic about using strategy games on the school curriculum but concedes that some children will gain more from simpler games such as Connect 4, or from team rather than individual games, than from chess.

So instead of saying that ‘all children should learn chess’, let’s say that ‘all children should have the opportunity to learn chess’. And let’s send out the message about the sort of children who are most likely to enjoy and benefit from chess (academically able, particularly at maths perhaps, competitive, often introverted, can focus intently one one thing, prefer individual to team activities, prefer quiet to loud activities) and encourage parents and schools to be proactive about which children should learn chess. One possible idea for primary schools is to use chess as a curriculum enhancement option for gifted and talented maths students, but many other approaches are also possible.

Proposition 2: All children should have the opportunity to learn chess.

3. All schools should do chess

Again, many of the same arguments apply. There’s a whole host of extra-curricular activities that schools could offer and usually they have to make a choice. We might want to give as many schools as possible the option of chess but we have to realise and accept that many schools are, not always for sensible reasons, opposed to chess. If a school such as Twickenham Prep has a senior member of staff who is keen on chess it might well want to encourage children to play on a daily basis, which is of course absolutely fine. But you can’t really force schools who are not interested to do chess.

For these reasons, any attempt to promote chess as a compulsory subject in schools in the UK is doomed to failure. There are better ways for us to promote junior chess than to waste our time on something that will never happen. In Armenia, yes, because it’s part of their national culture. But here it’s not, and almost certainly never will be.

Before we go any further we have to ask ourselves what exactly we mean by ‘do chess’ anyway. There are three products that schools can offer: teaching chess to beginners, providing opportunities for children who have learnt the moves to play casual games with their friends and providing tuition for children who are interested in trying out serious competitive chess. Just deciding you want to ‘do’ chess and starting a club will attract children with all three requirements and you’ll probably end up not doing any of them optimally. It would be entirely sensible and logical for a school to choose any combination of these three, or none. But if we’re going to go into schools we need to explain the possibilities to them, give them different options, and, for the first and third, offer them an outstanding product, as well as, where necessary, an outstanding teacher. While we have some outstanding teachers (and others who are not outstanding) we don’t have an outstanding product. In fact we don’t really have a product at all.

Compare chess with swimming. You might want to teach young children how to swim, to provide facilities for children to have fun splashing around in the shallow end, and provide coaching for competitive swimmers. But you’d need different people for each purpose: someone used to working with young children to teach the beginners, a life guard to supervise the children having fun in the shallow end and a proper swimming coach for the competitive swimmers. And you wouldn’t do them all at the same time because they’d just get in each other’s way.

My basic problem with teaching in primary school chess clubs comes down to this: most of the children in these clubs are only interested in playing casual games with their friends and have no interest in learning or improving their chess. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t do just as there’s no reason why they shouldn’t kick a ball around in the playground or splash around in the shallow end of the pool. We need to identify those who do want to take chess seriously, and whose parents are prepared to support this, and provide the tuition they need within a different environment.

Proposition 3: Schools should think very carefully about what they want out of chess.

4.We should be encouraging chess in schools

Right, so we’ve decided that we want to give every child the opportunity to learn chess. If we’re realistic we’re also aware that not every school will want to teach children chess, and that forcing schools to do this will not work. So what do we do?

Fortunately, there’s an answer which is, at least in principle, simple. We set up a network of Junior Chess Clubs, or Schools, or Academies, or Centres of Excellence or whatever you want to call them. These clubs (or whatever) would be professionally run and provide outreach to the local schools and community. The staff would include teachers who were not necessarily strong players but who were knowledgeable about how to teach chess to young children, as well as strong players for higher level coaching. 3Cs in Oldham run something very similar to this at the moment. Richmond used to, but, for various reasons, no longer does. We’re working on it, though.

So if a school in that area wanted to do chess the Club would be able to advise them on their options, provide or recommend appropriate coaching materials and lesson plans, and, if required, provide a chess teacher. They would also run beginners’ groups for children who were not able to learn at school as well as groups for more experienced players who wanted to learn how to play at a competitive level. Schools who just wanted to provide facilities for casual games wouldn’t need a professional coach, just an enthusiastic teacher or parent who knew the rules, and could feed through those children who wanted to take chess more seriously.

In other countries in Western Europe things are easier. A chess club will often be a large organisation meeting at weekends where chess is by no means the only activity. Such a club would often have an active junior section offering tuition at all levels in the same way that football, rugby and cricket clubs operate here. But our chess clubs tend to be small and insular, meeting in draughty church halls or dubious pubs, run by middle-aged men with little interest in the outside world. Until this situation changes, and I really don’t see it happening, we need to promote junior clubs instead (which could well be connected to the local adult club).

There are many reasons (and I write from experience) why junior chess clubs are much better than schools at producing children with a lifelong interest in chess. They also, at a lower level, can provide a means whereby every child has the opportunity to play chess.

I would propose that the main focus of junior chess development in this country should be through setting up a network of junior chess clubs, not directly through promoting chess in schools.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I have no problem with schools which are really committed to chess and where children get the chance to play on a regular basis, as long as there’s a junior club to attract their strongest players. About 20 years ago there were two primary schools in Richmond where the headteacher was very keen on chess and all children were taught to play. One of the schools produced a GM and the other produced two IMs. Children who just play chess once a week at school, though, will make little progress and soon lose interest.

Proposition 4: We should set up a network of junior chess clubs providing outreach to schools.

[Please come back tomorrow - and the rest of the week! - when Richard examines the frequently asserted, but seldom scrutinised, view that chess is good for kids.]

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